Heads in the sand

I recently saw a video on the internet of a woman singing in church. She was accompanied only by the guitar. The words were “Amazing Grace:”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

She sang all the verses to the well-known song.

But the clincher was that the tune was different from that which many of us know. I was tipped off as the guitar played the melody before she began to sing and I was singing it along with the words I knew:

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
And it’s been the ruin of many-a poor boy,
And, God, I know I’m one.

But then she launched into the words to “Amazing Grace.” I was surprised, to say the least.

The beauty of taking both familiar and favorite tunes and lyrics and putting them together in unexpected ways is that we have a tendency to listen a bit closer. I found myself thinking through each one of those lines written by seafarer-turned-minister John Newton in the mid-1700s. It was first used in a worship service in 1773 but it may have been chanted rather than sung to a tune. More than 20 tunes have been associated with the song, but it is most known since 1835 to go with a tune called “New Britain.”

All that history is important because all of us get so entrenched in the way we have always thought was the right way. The church is a great illustration of that for me, but only because I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the church since I was a kid. After I made a mid-career turn into ministry, I discovered just how entrenched people could be.

Take, for instance, the singing of “The Doxology:”

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Youth groups for decades have sung that revered piece of praise to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway,” a tango written in 1954 for the movie “The Pajama Game.” It peps it up from the “Old Genevan Psalter,” written in 1551.

But for me as a pastor, I’ve found that using tunes like “House of the Rising Sun” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” is the equivalent of speaking heresy in many churches today, especially ones steeped in tradition.

I’ve had more than one church member scold me for including what they call contemporary music in a worship service even though that music was written and first sung 40 and 50 years ago. I have been lectured about associating new words that fit a Lenten or Advent season with more recognizable old tunes. For instance, using the well-known tune for “Joy to the World” with new words that are more appropriate to the days leading up to Christmas, days that reflect the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. Doing that gives church-goers the opportunity to sing the music they have so enjoyed for years at Christmas yet slows them down a bit so they don’t just jump to the manger without properly giving it thought.

“It’s not right!” to use lyrics written by noted church leaders of today with music written hundreds of years ago, I’ve been told over and over again.

As I have always wanted church-goers to feel immediately comfortable upon visiting our worship services, I have tried to print in the bulletin the words to the more familiar responses like “The Doxology.” A number of years ago, I started changing those words as printed. Instead of referring to God as “Him,” I simply changed the word to “God.” No one noticed. Those who felt more comfortable referring to God as a male, could certainly do that. Those of us who see God a little differently, were free to use that appellation instead. But when I pointed the change out to someone after several years of having the new version printed in the bulletins, I was met with raised eyebrows and a shake of the head.

I have been met with such vehement opposition to the way things should be done in a worship service and how words should be teamed up with specific musical settings, I’ve even pointed out that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung to an old British drinking song. There are some folks who have just denied that truth in an effort to support their own traditions.

As churches have gradually given way from the King James Version of the Bible to the Revised Standard and the New Revised Standard (not to mention a host of other translations) through the years, there have been congregants who have clung to the King James because they believe it is the only true Bible. I have pointed out that the Bible wasn’t originally written in English nor did Jesus speak English; that modern scholarship has provided us with more accurate and even more understandable language that comes closer to the original Hebrew, Greek, and even Aramaic spoken in the Bible. I have been met with disdain when I have suggested that there are some words in the original Hebrew and Greek that are more accurately translated as “humankind” rather than “man” or “mankind.” It is a plot, many have surmised, of the feminists to take over the church and the Bible and manipulate it to their own ends.

Imagine, then, when I have pointed out to church members that their beloved stained-glass windows depict a European-looking Jesus. “Jesus didn’t look like that,” I’ve said.

– Jac Vanek (internet image)

Some of these battles have never really turned into battles. I pick my fights carefully and more often than not walk away if only to keep the peace to fight another day.

The idea is not to fight at all. The idea is to point out that there are different ways to look at traditions and interpretations we hold so dear. The idea is to make us more tolerant of people sitting right next to us who may be seeing the world, the community, neighbors, people, and ideas differently, and surprisingly differently, than the way we see them.

It’s natural to think that an entrenched way of thinking is inherent in church tradition. But it isn’t limited to that setting any more than “The Doxology” is limited to one tune. In every walk of life, from religion to politics, we have a tendency to think there’s only one way, our way, to get a job done and we close ourselves off from our neighbors and their ideas. We may be singing an old tune with new words or a new tune with old words and not even notice anything has been changed.

Meanwhile, and because I am no longer in charge of a worship service, I’ll be tending toward something more traditional because I do not have an affinity for the repetitive nature of many of the praise songs available for worship today. There’s nothing wrong with those praise songs and I’m not critical of them. I just prefer to do things differently. At the same time, I’m very willing to see and hear new ways to worship God.

I feel that way about a lot of the world too.

Maybe I can come up with a more modern tune to use with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.” – Isaiah 67:17

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